Wilfred Owen became one of the most famous poets of World War One. Although killed in battle, his poetry provides details of his emotions and thoughts on war, particularly praising officers who fought beside their men in battle.
Born on 18th March 1893 in Shropshire, Owen demonstrated an interest in the arts - particularly poetry - from a young age. He also began to show a sympathy for the poor while working at his local church, noting the stark contrast between the large vicarage and hovels that were lived in by many of the locals.
Owen moved to Bordeaux to teach at the Berlitz School of English and it was here where he fell under the influence of French poet Laurent Tailhade. He quickly began experimenting with unusual styles of writing poetry and came up with the ‘vowel-rhyme stunt’.
At the beginning of World War One, Owen had the opportunity to visit wounded French soldiers at a hospital in Baignères. Following his trip, he wrote about what he had witnessed and drew the wounds in graphic detail.
In September 1915, Owen returned to England and signed up for the Artists’ Rifles, convinced that he must fight in order to save the English language. In June 1916, he received his commission in thee 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and spent the rest of that year in training.
When he arrived in Étaples, Owen found the men in the trenches to be rough and uncultured, but he managed to earn their respect by being a good shot with most infantry weapons.
Wilfred Owen’s first taste of battle was in January 1917, when he and his men were forced to hold out for 50 hours in a flooded dug-out in No-Man’s Land while they were being bombarded by German artillery. This experience had a clear impact on Owen, who had previously written to his parents with jollity but now found himself “in front of the front line”. While in the dug out, a shell fell beside him and shrapnel hit one of his men on sentry duty. His poem “The Sentry” is an account of this.
In May the following year, Owen was hit by a shell explosion at Savy Bank and spent a number of days in a railway embankment. The same explosion killed his best friend ‘Cock Robin’ and this had a huge impact on Owen, who was later diagnosed with shell shock and evacuated from the war front.
Owen was encouraged by his doctor to write and he soon became editor of the hospital’s magazine, “The Hydra”. It was while in hospital that Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, who read his poetry and encouraged him to continue writing. He also met Robert Graves, H G Wells and Arnold Bennett.
Owen’s relationship with Sassoon changed the way he wrote poetry. It was during this time when Owen wrote some of his most famous poetry and Sassoon even contributed, changing the same of one of his most famous pieces to “Anthem for Doomed Youth” rather than “Anthem to Dead Youth”.
In the spring of 1918, Owen released a short book of poems and the preface contained some of his more famous quotes including “this book is not about heroes” and “my subject is war and the pity of war; the poetry is in the pity”. The poems followed on from this, providing blunt, honest accounts of warfare including all of the nasty sights that come with it.
During June 1918, Owen rejoined his regiment and he was sent to France in August. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery while in action near Amiens, with his citation reading:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on 1st/2nd October 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun in an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.”
Sadly, Wilfred Owen was killed just six days before the end of the war leading his men to battle at the Sambre-Oise Canal. His unit had been ordered to cross the canal and engage the enemy, and that there should be “no retirement under any circumstances”. His unit attempted to cross on cork pontoons but they were cut down by dug in German machine guns.
Owen, just 25 when he died, was buried at the CWGC cemetery at Ors. His parents were told of his death on 11th November 1918 - Armistice Day.
While the poems of Wilfred Owen have become well-loved, with within and outside of the literary world, there are some who fought on the front line who did not support his vision. Owen was criticised for immersing his reader in pity and some believed he concentrated too much on the misery of war without considering the bravery and comradeship that also came with it. However, in the anti-war movement of the early 1960s, Owen’s poems were used to express the horrors of war and he finally achieved widespread fame.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
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